Novel Boot Camp #7: The Quest for Originality

14767198802_111238d48d_oNobody wants their writing to be cliché. Nobody wants to seem as if they’re relying on tropes. And certainly nobody wants to be seen as a copycat.

Pretty much every writer wants their novel to be stunningly original.

But we also know that it is impossible to be entirely original. To write an entirely original novel would result in something that actually looks nothing like a novel at all.

The quest for originality is not really about being totally unique, it’s about balancing original and familiar elements. You can’t write a novel on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich any more than you can write a novel about a boy wizard called Harry.

Since it’s impossible to be totally original and you can’t get away with totally copying, there is a place between the two where great ideas live. Maybe your boy wizard discovers his magic while being enslaved by an evil king. This idea isn’t entirely original, but it isn’t copying either.

And remember, just because someone else wrote about wizards, doesn’t mean you can’t write about wizards. I often have writers emailing me in a panic because a novel written by Joe Schmoe in 2002 had a kinda-sorta similar premise to their novel. Relax!

It’s okay if other novels are similar to yours. As long as you didn’t deliberately steal the work, it most likely isn’t even similar enough for people to notice. Don’t forget that execution counts for a lot more than the nugget of idea at the center of the story.

So When is Unoriginality Truly a Problem?

Though being completely original is not necessary, many amateur writers still struggle with originality. Usually those who are struggling fall into two groups:

  1. Writers who never considered whether their idea is original.
  2. Writers who panic over any detail of their novel that has anything to do with any detail of another already published novel.

In other words, if you’re trying to be original, you’ve probably succeeded. For those who aren’t trying to be original (or for those who are trying but still fear they are failing), let’s look at some reasons unoriginality might be a problem.

Someone Beat You to the Punch

This is the rarest situation to ever arise, but it seems to be the one writers are most often worried about.

Coincidences do happen in the publishing industry, and it is possible that another writer came up with an idea that is startlingly similar to yours, got it published, and had a high level of success before you even started querying agents.

If you think this happened to you, take a deep breath and a step back and examine the similarities. Read this other book. Is it really that similar? Are they similar enough that they could be confused for each other? If not, then you’re probably okay.

You Knowingly Copied Another Work

Sometimes writers get inspired by other books, TV shows, and movies. Sometimes this “inspiration” can look a lot like copying. If you’ve done this, you know who you are.

It’s okay to “borrow” story elements for your novel so long as they can be disguised and couched within other original ideas. So again, don’t get bent out of shape if you have an element or two of your story that’s similar to another work. But if you’ve lifted the entire premise and the main characters’ personalities are identical, you are likely to be called on it.

Your Novel is a Trope Plus a Trope Plus a Trope

4405668977_9fdd7c347d_oA trope is any element of a novel that is familiar or predictable. A trope is not inherently bad, but overused tropes tend to drag down a novel by making it feel expected and overly familiar. This can be overcome by including more original ideas.

Essentially, you need to strike a balance between original ideas and tropes. The more tired the trope, the more original ideas you need to couch it in. If you have one stunningly amazing original idea, you can probably get away with relying on lots of tropes for the other components of the novel.

If your novel is about an orphan who teams up with a wise wizard to learn how to harness his power and fulfill a prophecy, you’re going to have to use a lot of original ideas to offset the tropes.

You Don’t Read Enough

If you don’t read, or if you don’t read modern novels, or if you don’t read in the genre you want to write in, you won’t know the tropes within that genre. I’m surprised by how often I encounter aspiring writers who say they don’t read. If you don’t read, you are bound to think you have an original idea even if it is the most overused trope in the genre.

I can’t overstate the importance of reading modern novels in your genre if you want to get published.

The Writing Itself is Cliché

Sometimes the problem with a novel is not the story itself, but the writing. If your writing style relies on a lot of cliches, even original ideas can sound worn out.

It’s normal to use clichés in a first draft because those are the phrases that flow quickly and easily through our fingertips, but those phrases need to be changed during revisions to reflect your unique and original voice.

What to do when your writing is unoriginal?

If beta readers, editors, or critique partners tell you that your novel is not unique or if you just have this niggling feeling in the back of your mind, remember that you essentially have two paths to a successful novel:

  • Write a familiar idea better than it’s ever been done before.
  • Write a familiar idea with a unique twist.

If you’re an amateur writer, chances are you aren’t going to be able to execute an idea in the best way it’s ever been done, so you are most likely going to need to choose the second option.

Putting a unique spin on an idea that’s already been done is actually quite easy with a couple of brainstorming sessions. I’m not going to go into how to brainstorm here because we already talked about creativity last week.

Originality is rarely a problem if you’re planning your novel in advance, but it becomes a big problem if your novel is already written and you realize it’s not offering any new twists. Adding a unique spin might require deconstructing, restructuring, and rewriting your book, which totally sucks, but it’s the only way to revive a novel that truly lacks originality.


Consider what is original about your novel. What unique twist makes your novel stand out? How is it different from other novels with a similar premise?

If you don’t know of any novels like yours or if you don’t read modern books in your genre, do a search for novels with a similar premise and get a sense of your competition.

Identifying what is unique about your novel is important because the unique twist is your selling point. It’s what should be highlighted in your query letter to tempt agents and editors.

If your novel is original, pat yourself on the back and see if you can’t bring that originality to the forefront of your query.

If your novel is unoriginal, dig deep and brainstorm interesting twists that could make you stand out from the competition.

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question (please discuss in the comments below):

What makes your novel unique? Do you ever worry that your novel is not original?


10 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #7: The Quest for Originality

  1. Karen says:

    Holy cow, it’s like you crawled into my brain and found my current stress point for today’s article. Too bad I didn’t read this before the totally calm and mature discussion (fight) with writing partner/ husband. Now I have to deal with his I-told-you-so attitude.

  2. Lady of Lore says:

    It may not be totally original but my critique partners have told me that elemental fantasy is a rare genre of fantasy that does not get written about as much as other genres of magic. That makes me feel good. As for original ideas, characters…I need to work on those.

  3. chickinwhite says:

    I am sure, to be inspired by the work of others is something very precious and often leads to really wonderful new stories. As long as we keep it in mind, that the original thing doesn´t belong to us and we need to create our own world/char/plot/goal… whatever. So, if not in fanfiction, there should be some clear distance to existing works. (well, as far as existing works are known, of course).
    Thanks for this article, as for all the others!! There is always some doubt iin my mind, but you´ve calmed me…

  4. Jim says:

    Ellen’s info is SO GOOD! My writers’ group tells me I’m good at providing hooks that cause them to want to keep reading, but all they’re getting are the short excerpts I provide them and those are always the more action-packed scenes. I need to work a lot more on becoming “original” with the rest of the story.

  5. Hailey says:

    Honestly, it is really hard to feel original when you write YA fantasy. Everything is either formulaic or cliche. My last novel’s premise is almost identical to at least four series that I can go to the library and check out. Very discouraging. It’s like ‘oh, that could be how she defeats this guy – no, wait, that’s that book. Never mind.’
    There’s still hope for my new idea. It has humanoid dragons, which I’ve only seen via normal dragons turning into humans, and mainstream, public knowledge, magic. In Canada, because I live there and it gets ignored a lot for being right above the US.

  6. cbowers911 says:

    I think my novel will be somewhat original since it is based on my life and my family’s journey through surrogacy. On my surrogacy journey, I tried to find information about the ins and outs of surrogacy and I was only able to find 2 books that were closely related in Barnes and Nobles. My pursuit for finding my passion within a career, developing a more mentoring and close relationship with my children and true love will allow readers to be reassured that love still exist and the power of love is invaluable.

  7. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    I agree with Hailey about YA Fantasy. I really enjoy reading this genre and as a writer, it’s intimidating and daunting to try to break in to this genre with something original and unique. The story I’m currently working on is a YA Fantasy, but I wanted to write something that focused on positive female relationships (mother/daughter). I also wanted to write a story that isn’t part of the love triangle troupe, but rather a female heroine who can succeed with a male hero without having to become romantically involved.

  8. Robert Buchko says:

    This definitely alleviates some of my concern. Time travel is so common nowadays, especially since the revival of Dr Who, that it feels like I’m just copying tropes sometimes. I thought the whole “tangent strand” way of dealing with paradox was fairly unique, and then I decided to re-watch Donnie Darko a few weeks back. Yeah, so much for that. I do think that the way I’m approaching it as well as some of pieces of my world will make it FEEL unique, though. Now, as to my character-driven plots, I’m falling into cliche, but I wonder if that’s OK. It’s YA, and the reason there are common storylines in most YA books is that TBH there are only so many things that the majority of YA readers care about. Family. Sex/dating. Standing out/being unique. I’ve decided I’m not going to worry if the interactions feel aren’t original so long as they feel compelling to me. Appreciate the insight, Ellen!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hey Robert, I wonder if you asked a few people what Donnie Darko is about if any of them remember it as being a time travel movie. I bet most do not, and the ones who do probably don’t remember what sort of theory was involved in the time travel. Just thought that might alleviate your fears a bit more. I’m glad the post helped!

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